January 16, 2007

Down Memory Lane...


My late grandmother, we call her Bibi in Iraqi dialect (pronouned BeeBee), has been on my mind a lot these past weeks. Usually, when that happens, it means that she portends a special message for us "out there."

When she passed away, we were under "the shock and awe" liberation campaign and she did not get the funeral she rightly deserved. She passed away during the night. But she did open her eyes that one last time and professed the testimony of the Unity of Faith. "There is no God but God and Mohamed is his messenger." Then she slipped quietly into Death and onto the other side.
I am glad Bibi passed away in such a way. I keep wondering how she would have coped in her old age with the current hell.

Did you notice something too? Hardly anyone mentions anything about the elderly in Iraq. You get to see quite a few articles on children and widows but nothing on the elderly. It is as if those don't matter anymore.
Marginalized by age, life and the liberation/occupation, they are waiting for death to deliver them from the violence they witness. A violence added to their many years of experience in Iraq, experiences that left not only deep wrinkles but also deep wounds. Who has time for them? An extra burden or so it seems.

One thing though, I am grateful for. The western fashion trend of placing our elderly in "old people's" homes has not caught up yet.
They are a source of wisdom, affection and ancestral continuity, they cannot be banished away in anonymous dorms and rooms and visited once a year.That would be a grave sin indeed.
Whatever the "shadows" of Arab culture , we have not been contaminated by the cult of youth, perfect health and unfaillible beauty yet, forcing us to abandon our elders.
I guess the saying of the Prophet Mohammed must still be ringing somewhere in our collective psyche :" He who has no compassion for our little ones and does not acknowledge the honour due to our elders is not one of us."

Getting back to Bibi. Bibi never made it to school even though she ardently desired to learn how to read and write. She was married off at a very young age and her life was far from being a smooth ride.
Even though she was an "illiterate" woman, she had the wisdom and the knowledge that very few "educated" women have today. She had what we call in Arabic "Fitra".
An innate knowing, an intuition that would pierce even the most complex dense situations,like a laser beam. And, she was able to tell you anything you needed to know about any person, just from one glance.

When the "war" was about to break out, I told her: " Bibi, the americans will be landing in Baghdad soon." She paused for a few minutes and her glassy eyes went into that "sacred space" and she replied :" They will be driven out like dogs." "But..." I protested.
She would not let me finish and waved with her hand to stop me in mid sentence. " I just know." she said. End of conversation.

Bibi was an Arab through and through. I did not know much about her own parents, except that her father was an "Effendi" ( a title given to someone from a higher strata of society) and that her mother i.e my great grandmother Layla, was a woman of beauty and tenacity.
Bibi gave me the only picture she had of my great grandmother. She said: "Hold on to it, my mother Layla is a saint."
When I asked her why, she replied matter of factly :" My mother lost 9 of her kids, I am the only survivor. When asked what is worse than losing your kids, your great Bibi Layla said , losing one's mind."
I did not press for more information on her parents as the subject made Bibi tearful and I could not bear see a tear on her smooth wrinkled cheeks.

Bibi lived in a "predominantly sunni " neighborhood.
Do you ever wonder how these people know what is predominantly sunni and what is predominantly shi'a neighborhoods? Like did they send statisticians and sociologists for surveys before rolling in? Or were the figures provided for them by their collaborators? Another topic worthy of social science research on "the manufacturing" of sectarianism.

Anyways, as I was saying , Bibi lived in let's say "Adhamiya" (now part of the soooneee triangle- well at least we are part of something- now that everything else is crumbling before our very eyes.)
I did say "let's say Adhamiya." I need to keep the exact location secret. You never know, they might go and dig out the dead from their graves, interrogate them and give them their final "seal" of torture. I would not want that to happen to Bibi.

When I was a little girl, around 10 years old, I used to go and spend several weeks on end at her place, which was quite often. And I was always in for a special treat.
Over and above her overflowing affection and attention , she had an amazing sense of humor. She would teach me the lyrics of old Iraqi songs and give me the "forbidden fruit"- ice cream and orange flavored iraqi made chocolate. Something that would send my mother into fits of fury. "How can you eat this mud ?" she would scold me. But for me, it was the best mud ever.

Another special treat I got from Bibi was her taking me for walks by the river.
Beautiful long stretches of a path bordered by diginified palm trees and red flowers. (it is now called the green zone)
I would pick some earth from the ground and put it in a plastic bag carefully chosen for the occasion and tell her: "Bibi ,everytime I will smell this earth, I will remember you."
She would give me a hearty laugh and say "I do not need to remember you with anything, you are engraved in my heart." And then she would hug me and I would get a whiff of her fresh odor, a mixture of rose essence and homemade soap. I will never forget that smell for as long as I live.

I had always admired her black "abaya" (not to be confused with chador please).
I was intrigued as to how she could walk with this long black thing. The interesting aspect of an abaya is that you could wear anything underneath it. You had this total veiled freedom.
One day Bibi sawed an abaya for me. I practiced walking in it but always tripped.
She took me to the market with her, in the very early hours of the morning.
We would buy hot bread and a thick cream made of buffalo milk to be savored later with tea, prepared with great care and gently brewed on charcoal.
These outings to the market were very special to me. I would wear my abaya and underneath it keep my cotton nightie. It felt so free to go out in your nightie, for a 10 year old kid like myself. But I kept tripping. So I settled to snuggling against her thigh underneath her abaya and look at the world from the opening of her sleeve. A safe, secure vision that I long for today.

Bibi was religious in her own way. She did not pray regularly nor fast. And when questioned by little inquisitive me, she would brush it aside claiming that she seen enough and that God understood. I loved that about Bibi, that veiled religiosity mixed with a dry sense of humor.
But she had reverence for the sacred and its symbols. She was the one who took me to all the shrines in Iraq. The "sunni" Imam Abu Hanifa mosque, the "sunni" Sheikh Abdel Qader al Gailani shrine, the "shi'a" Sayyed Al Kazem shrine... And outside of Baghdad, the "shi'a" Najaf and Kerbala shrines for the Imams Ali, Hassan and Al.Hussein.
And, out of respect for my christian side, she would take me to"Our Lady Maryam" church in the old parts of the city and buy candles for me to light whilst I uttered a prayer to our Lady to safeguard all of it.

On the Eid, she would buy a small lamb and have R. slaughter it according to the exact ritual, in the back of her small garden.
R. would tie the lamb's legs, place it's head towards Mecca, profess the testimony of faith, invoke the name of the Almighty, then bring the sharp knife to its jugular. At that point, I would cover my eyes with my tiny hands and still peek through them, trying hard to contain my tears. I reared that lamb and fed it daily before its slaughter.
Oddly enough, when I saw yet another video of the late President Saddam Hussein, being slaughtered on the Eid and having his feet tied before the gallows, this image from my childhood flashed through my mind with amazing clarity. I have not touched lamb since.

In the evenings and when the weather was mild, Bibi and I would sit in her front garden.
She braided my hair recounting to me stories whilst I was making necklaces of jasmin and orange blossom flowers...

I am very grateful for having been blessed with intimate, loving memories with Bibi.
They are my cushion today, something to fall back onto when the going gets rough.
They remind me that we had a life before, that love was a possibility.
Bibi's image represents to me Iraq as it used to be. She and the Iraq I have known (and no longer recognize) are one and the same.

How many Iraqi children can claim something similar today ?
Dear reader, do look after your elderly. They are irreplaceable.
Thank you Bibi.


Painting : Pionner Iraqi artist, AbdelQadir Rassam.